WHO ACTUALLY WROTE THE IMPROMPTU OF FAURÉ?
by Carl Swanson
(This article originally appeared in The Journal of the American Harp Society,
Winter 1999 issue, Vol. 17, no. 2.)


      As the 1991 World Harp Congress in Paris was drawing to a close, Catherine Michel and I made plans to drive Pierre Jamet down to his summer home in Gargilesse. Arriving at his apartment on a warm July afternoon to pick him up, I was shocked by his deteriorated condition. He had always been a tall, slender, elegant man, impeccably dressed, even well into his 90's. But now, at 97, it was obvious his health was failing badly. His clothes hung loosely on his diminished frame, and at first he barely recognized me, his mind seeming to be veiled in a fog. We talked for a few minutes, and little by little, he began to focus better. Finally, Catherine and his nurse came in and helped him to his feet, guiding him out of the apartment to the car. He could barely walk. I looked around the empty apartment one last time, taking in the objects I had become so familiar with- the exquisite portrait of his mother painted by his father, the Naderman harp in the corner, the Erard Gothic on which I had had all my lessons- and knowing this occasion would be the last time I would see these surroundings and him, my throat got tight, and my eyes filled with tears as I closed the apartment door behind us.

      We settled into the van and headed South from Paris. Chatting along the way, he picked up considerably, and by the time we stopped at Orléans for dinner, he was again the marvelous wit and raconteur that I remembered.

    Over dinner, Catherine posed a question to him that took me by surprise, and the response he gave left me momentarily speechless. "What truth," she asked "was there to the story that Hasselmans had had a very considerable hand in the composition of the Fauré Impromptu?" She was referring of course to Alphonse Hasselmans, the harp teacher at the Paris Conservatory at the time of the Impromptu's composition, and its dedicatee. Jamet's voice got very low, and he leaned his head towards us, wincing as he remembered an 87 year old scandal that was still fresh to him. "The story is true," he said. "But don't tell anyone." Astonished, I asked for more explanation. "Well," he said, "Fauré had accepted the commission for the competition piece that year(1904), and at some point realized that he would never finish it on time. So he turned over what he had done to Hasselmans who then completed it. Of the two Fauré pieces for solo harp," he continued," I prefer the Châtelaine en sa Tour... It's more awkward, but it's pure Fauré."

      Could this possibly be true, I thought? For me, it had the instant ring of truth, for reasons that I will explain later. And it was coming from the mouth of an eye witness and contemporary of all of the principals involved. Jamet had of course known both Hasselmans and Fauré, as well as several of the students who had been in that class. But first, to understand how this could have happened, it is necessary to explain the circumstances under which the piece was composed.

    The Paris Conservatory until very recently had jury exams at the end of every academic year, in which all students were required to participate. The exam for each instrument (called a concour-but the translation "contest" really doesn't work here), consisted of two pieces: one from the standard repertoire, and one brand-new composition, especially written for that year's exams. The standard repertoire piece was announced two months before the exam, and the new piece one month. Any student who already knew the standard repertoire piece had a leg up on anyone who didn't. But they were all equal where it came to the new piece. The commissions for the new pieces were given out in great secrecy, and the publisher knew that the piece had to be ready to sell on a specific date. On the day of the announcement, the students would rush across the rue de Madrid to the music store to buy their copy of the new piece and get to work. Regardless of how long or short a time they had been at the Conservatory, each student played the two pieces for the jury, who would then award an unspecified number of first prizes, second prizes, and first and second honorable mentions to each class. (The word class here refers to all the students taught by one teacher-usually 12-who were taught in classes twice a week. The weekly private lesson was taught by the teacher's assistant.)

       Unlike most other commissions that Fauré received, this one had a deadline set in stone as it were, and Fauré knew it.

       On the surface it would appear that there would be no difficulty meeting the deadline. Fauré was by then a well known and distinguished composer who was among those at the forefront of French musical composition.

       But Fauré's time was regulated by all of the various duties he had to perform in order to make ends meet. He was organist at the church of the Madeleine, inspector of musical instruction of the Administration des Beaux-Arts, professor of composition at the Conservatory, music critic for Le Figaro, and a year later would be Director of the Conservatory. And all of this only to make a modest living, since none of these jobs paid more than a pittance, while at the same time depriving him of much needed time to compose.

       In his Biography of Fauré, Emile Vuillermoz recalls a very telling incident. Vuillermoz, who at the time was studying composition with Fauré at the Conservatory, wanted to join the Society of Authors and Composers(S.A.C.E.M.-a professional union)and needed the sponsorship of two members to be admitted. Fauré agreed to be one sponsor, and George Hüe-then at the peak of his career- the other. Immensely proud to possess an application form signed by two such illustrious composers, he presented it at the offices of S.A.C.E.M. But the employee who took it looked it over, scowling, and said, "Fauré?..Gabriel Fauré?...We don't have anyone here by that name." Vuillermoz continues: Angered with the impetuous indignation of youth, I severely reprimanded the impertinence of the petty official by reminding him that Gabriel Fauré was a professor of composition at the Conservatory, that he was world famous and had composed numerous masterworks. "That's quite possible, young man," he calmly retorted, "only, you see, in the Society of Authors..., in order to be a sponsor, after all one must first be a member, and in order to be a member, a composer must receive from his performances a minimum of 200 francs in royalties a month. And your Gabriel Fauré has never earned such a sum! " The fact was that this marvelous composer couldn't make a living composing.

       So it is entirely possible, as Pierre Jamet told us that night, that Fauré, burdened by all these other obligations, went to Hasselmans and admitted that he could not finish the piece on time. What has always been known about the composition of this piece, and about which there is no dispute, is that Fauré was so late completing it, that there was no time to get it to the printer, and the students in the class had to go to Hasselmans' apartment to hand copy the entire piece from the manuscript!

      Alphonse Hasselmans and Fauré were very close friends, in part due to Hasselmans' two children, Louis and Marguerite. Louis was a highly respected 'cellist to whom Fauré had dedicated a pair of 'cello sonatas. Marguerite was an equally talented pianist, more musical than virtuoso according to contemporaries, radiantly beautiful by standards of the day, who passionately championed, and was a highly respected interpreter of the piano pieces of Fauré. She was also Fauré's mistress and constant companion from 1900 until his death in 1924. This was no clandestine affair, and after Fauré's death, Marguerite-never a wealthy person herself-received occasional financial support from Fauré's sons who were aware of all she had given their father in terms of care and affection. She died in 1947.

       It is not totally out of the question in my mind that Fauré might have sought the aid of Hasselmans in making the piece fit the harp, and in the end simply turned over the completion to him. Once the deed was done of course, there was no turning back, especially since Fauré desperately wanted the Directorship of the Conservatory, again for financial reasons, and any scandal about one of his compositions would have had disastrous consequences.

       But the most compelling evidence to me in support of Pierre Jamet's account is really the composition itself. There are several things about it that bring its authorship into question. Here I refer to the original Durand edition.

       From the very first time that I played this piece over 30 years ago, I was struck by the odd format of its layout. The piece completely changes character at the top of page 6. Up until that point, it has the feeling of an impromptu, and a slight awkwardness that comes from a non-harpist writing for harp. Like the Châelaine it lies low on the instrument. The arpeggiated figures that start in the middle of page three are very similar to those in the Châelaine, as well as many other Fauré works. But suddenly, from the top of page 6 to the end, the piece turns into a set of variations based on the opening theme, and the variations are a survey of harp technique. From a technical standpoint, the notes suddenly fit the hand like a glove. It is impossible that a non- harpist could write music that fit the hand that well. Not only that, but the music from page 6 to the end, now slightly higher in register, is more brilliant acoustically, sitting as it does in exactly the right place on the harp.

       At the very least, it is obvious that a harpist-in all likelyhood Hasselmans-heavily edited the piece before it went to the publisher. But I don't think that is what happened. The music before page 6 and the music after page 6 are like two different pieces pasted together. It is possible that Hasselmans had a slight hand in modifying the material up to page 6, but then I think he simply finished the piece, without even a sketch from Fauré to go by.

       I think one of the reasons the Impromptu has always been more popular with harpists than the Châtelaine is that it fits the hand so well. It is so playable. The Châelaine by contrast, while very beautiful, is one of the most awkward pieces I have ever played on the harp. There are murderous pedal changes that have to be maddeningly precise, as well as almost constant problems with buzzing from its low positioning on the harp. Hasselmans was dead by the time the Châelaine was written, and it shows.

       The last thing that strikes me about these two pieces is that the first 5 pages of the Impromptu look like the Châelaine, while the last 7 pages of the Impromptu look like any number of pieces written by Hasselmans.

       I asked Jean-Michel Damase(whose mother, Micheline Kahn, premiered the Impromptu, and to whom the Châelaine is dedicated)about this story, and he vehemently denied its truth, blaming its origin on a very, very well known harpist(not Pierre Jamet), who shall remain nameless.

       Is the Impromptu fully composed by Faure? Or is it the best composition Hasselmans ever wrote? We may never know for sure, since it is unlikely that definitive proof will ever surface. It is still a valid part of the repertoire, no matter who wrote it. As far as its authorship is concerned, we will each have to decide for ourselves.